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photo of President Poskanzer

State of the College 2010

October 1, 2010


 

Welcome to our first gathering of the new academic year. I will ask your patience with an address that is slightly longer than I – and probably you – might prefer, but there are many things happening this year to share with you.

Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and endings. He was a god with special vision, empowered to see both the past and the future with great clarity, and therefore especially important to the Romans in times of personal or societal transition – for example, the birth of children, the celebration of marriage, the changing of the seasons.

I evoke Janus with you today because we at New Paltz are in a special time of transition. Our 2010-2011 academic year is off to a great start, but it also brings a period of great challenges. We are in the midst of a time of persistent, deep fiscal difficulty, and a change in leadership. To emerge even stronger, even better, we must draw upon our strengths -- we must in a way look backwards. We must also look forward with confidence and with a clear, focused idea of our direction as we move to adapt our institution to new times and conditions.

That great American philosopher Yogi Berra offered the advice that “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” When I was introduced to you about a year ago as your new Provost, I never imagined that I would be standing here now as your Interim President. But I came to this fork in the road, and agreed to contribute to the College in this way at this special time, and am committed to doing the best job I can.

We of course regret the departure of Steve Poskanzer as our President; some of us attended his inauguration last weekend, and feel further closure on his time here as well as excitement for him about his new endeavor as President at Carleton. But it is indicative of our quality and our strength that one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the country came to New Paltz for its new president. And it was an expression of great confidence in our quality and direction that Chancellor Zimpher looked internally at New Paltz for interim leadership, rather than bringing in someone from outside to force a change in direction – which has been true for other campuses.

These things reflect the profile and reputation that the College has achieved in the higher education community and in SUNY, and are signs that we should have confidence in our trajectory. We must therefore focus on reinforcing our strengths and priorities and continuing to get better at what we do well. At the same time, we cannot be complacent. While we search for a new president we must make the major decisions that will keep us strong, vibrant, and fiscally sound.

There’s an old maritime saying that you never cut your engines in rough seas, and I think that is a useful metaphor for us during the current year.

Think also of a relay race. Runners do the best they can, and then pass the baton. I aim to carry the baton as interim president so as to keep the College moving ahead, and then hand over leadership to a new president without major disruptions or changes of course. I think very much about the future of the College, and about what we must continue to build during this transition. I intend to assure that we focus on sustaining our direction, maintaining and strengthening existing relationships, building new ones, and pursuing ongoing and new efforts. This will best position a new leader – and our institution – to be successful.

For the past decade and longer, the College has provided access to high-quality public education. We serve students and the state as a selective, residential, PUBLIC liberal arts college -- and our profile and reputation have grown on that basis. You saw our climb in the recent USNews and World Report rankings. Even though rankings have their detractors, this recognition for our accomplishments and profile should be a source of pride for our collective work.

In the spirit of Janus and looking back over the past few years, it is clear that our successes stem from focus and commitment to mission and vision. The eight elements of our Vision Plan have served us well. We must remain committed to them and to our niche of providing high-quality educational opportunities to citizens of New York. We rightly recognize and celebrate our strengths and values. These include:

  • A personalized, residential college experience, where students, faculty, and staff learn together through close interaction.
  • A high standard of rigor and academic expectation made possible by faculty of exceptional quality who are committed to students and their learning AND to conducting leading scholarship that informs their teaching and provides learning opportunities for students.
  • Intellectually capable and committed students who are able to rise to the challenges we provide.
  • A commitment to sustaining an open and diverse college community. This value considers many dimensions of diversity, including socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, political views, physical disability, and others.
  • Fostering a spirit of exploration, discovery, and artistry that prepares students to excel in a rapidly changing society and economy that demands creativity and worldliness.
  • A commitment to educating each student as a whole person.
  • Being an intellectual and cultural hub in the Hudson Valley.

Some of these features are most often identified with private liberal arts colleges. But our aim is to develop and refine such attributes as a PUBLIC institution. You and your work, and that of our students, has kept us advancing on these fronts. I want to spend a few minutes highlighting some of our accomplishments of the past year – and acknowledging the faculty, staff, and students who conduct the essential work of the College.

A college is as good as the people who come together in this very special intellectual enterprise of teaching, learning, and expanding knowledge. I want to say a few words about the people who make up the New Paltz community.

Consistent with our vision plan, we continue to attract an exceptional and diverse group of students. I hear from long-term faculty and staff how much you enjoy our students, and how they are better prepared, capable, and more engaged than even a few years ago. That certainly is reflected in trends of increasing high school rank and SAT score in successive student cohorts. We continue to maintain a highly diverse class – this year about 27% of our first-year students are from historically under-represented groups and reflect the many other dimensions of diversity I just noted.

As a comprehensive college, our focus is on our students and their learning. This means that a commitment to high-quality teaching and learning is essential. Our faculty engage students in and out of the classroom, help them develop intellectual capacities, knowledge, and understanding, guide their research and capstone projects, aid in their academic and personal development, and explore and implement new ways to foster meaningful learning and intellectual engagement.

Our students also learn extensively out of the classroom, and our staff in student affairs, athletics, residence life, and many other areas both support the academic endeavors of our students AND provide high-quality learning experiences outside of the classroom. These are key contributions to our students and their growth and learning.

We hire faculty who are committed to their research and scholarship – balanced in the right way with commitments to students and their learning. This has been, and unquestionably must remain, key to our central vision. Our faculty continue to make impressive research and scholarly contributions. You also engage students as collaborators on faculty scholarly projects, and mentor their independent projects. This linkage of faculty scholarship and student intellectual growth is another of our vision points.

Consistent with our vision plan and despite budgetary uncertainties, we have continued to hire new tenure-track faculty – at a time that some other SUNY campuses imposed hiring freezes. We hired 14 tenure-track faculty and several full-time lecturers last year, and you soon will be introduced to your new colleagues. They are an exceptional group, with degrees and teaching experience from institutions such as the University of Arizona, Indiana State, Columbia, and Purdue. We have just authorized searches for 11 tenure-track faculty positions this year – good news, even if it is not at the level that we all would prefer.

Of course, first and foremost we are here to educate students well. Indicators of student success are central to measuring our institutional success. Our retention and graduation rates continue to climb and to exceed by substantial margins the national averages for 4-year colleges and universities – both public and private. Our graduation and retention rates for students from traditionally under-represented groups also are well above national averages and reflect the important contributions that we make to ensuring access to high-quality educational opportunities for ALL New York citizens.

The people who make up a college are its most important asset. But the facilities where we teach, learn, perform, study, and think do matter. We want students and faculty to be able to interact in the best possible ways in and out of the classroom, to gain access to information and technology, to work effectively, and to be inspired. Even though many of us think that the quality of the academic experience should be the driving factor in college choice, there is no question that students and their parents care about the caliber of our campus environment. Like it or not, this is one aspect of our competition for the best students, a reality that will be more pressing as the number of New York high school graduates declines in the coming years. We need personality and good looks!

I want to share some of the key construction and renovation projects that we focused on this past year, some of which will continue during the current year.

The wonderful addition to our Student Union Building – the Atrium – is complete, and is bringing new life and energy to the campus and to our students.

Hopfer House, home to our admissions and alumni offices, has had a wonderful external refurbishing and takes its place as a source of pride in the “public face” we present to visitors.

The renovation of Old Main is progressing. We plan to occupy that building next summer, including all three floors of the south wing envisioned in our original planning. This spring, we will begin a gut renovation of Crispell Hall, one of our older residence halls.

We are completing a space use master plan that will provide critical data to support future capital requests to improve our physical environment and facilities. The major conclusion of that study is that we have many unmet space and building needs, relative to other SUNY comprehensive campuses.

Planning continues on our new science building, and on the renovation of Wooster and the Library. I thank all of the faculty and staff – and students – who have given input to the design and programming of these buildings. I want to acknowledge the great work that people in Facilities have been doing to advance these projects. Last year as Provost, I was heavily involved in planning these academic spaces. I am staying involved this year to ensure as much continuity as possible in administrative support for these projects.

Enough of looking back. I want to turn now to the immediate future, and some of the major tasks and opportunities we face this year. I believe most of you know that the presidential search has begun. A broadly representative search committee that includes faculty, staff, and student members is central to this process. The committee has helped craft announcements, will review applications, conduct off-campus interviews, select candidates to come to campus, and recommend finalists. The position announcement is posted on our Web site, advertisements have been placed, and the search consultant is busy networking to attract a robust and diverse applicant pool. This is one of our most important undertakings of the year.

Our Middle States re-accreditation process is well underway. The self-study document is nearing completion and will be made available this fall for your review. The Chair of our external review team will visit in early November to assess our readiness for the visit by the site team, currently scheduled for mid-April. Stay tuned for more about this process. I want to thank the many people – literally hundreds – who have worked hard on our self-study, and especially Interim Provost Laurel Garrick Duhaney and Professor Linda Greenow, the steering committee co-chairs, and Professor Sue Books, who is pulling together the final self-study document. I want to extend a special thanks also to Associate Vice President Ray Schwarz and Professor Kris Backhaus for all that they have done to get our assessment house in order, certainly a hot-button issue in regional accreditation throughout the country.

Another element of our vision is to offer a curriculum that prepares students for successful lives and careers. Given the pace of change in the world that our graduates will inherit, we must regularly review and revise our curriculum. Two significant academic initiatives are underway this year. I encourage your involvement in both. First, you have recently heard about this year’s series of discussions, brainstorming, and information gathering about our core educational goals, values, and aspirations for our students. This effort will set the stage for review and revision of our general education plan NEXT year.

Second, we will consider how we can build on the successes of our current honors program to make these wonderful learning opportunities available to more of our students, across more disciplines and majors. Professor Patricia Sullivan and a very dedicated and engaged committee are leading this effort.

In addition, Interim Provost Garrick Duhaney and I will continue to be attentive to ways that we can improve our graduation and retention rates, while sustaining high quality and rigorous standards. Potential points of focus include improved advising, more thoughtful course scheduling that minimizes conflict between required courses, structure of our degree requirements, and attention to courses in which students have high failure or withdrawal rates.

We need to be concerned about declines in our graduate enrollments and will need to be attentive this year to invigorating our programs and exploring those where we have the greatest opportunity for growth.

The next several efforts I will outline represent “batons” I will carry this year and hand off to the new president. One of these is the continuation of a comprehensive campaign to raise private funds to support our work.

In an era of dwindling state funding for higher education, public colleges like New Paltz increasingly rely on the support and generosity of friends and alumni who are committed to our programs and students. While philanthropic giving has long been important for New Paltz, and private giving to the College has increased gradually over time, we have not conducted a major comprehensive fund-raising campaign. We began work on the background for such a campaign last year, and this work continues at full pace this year – even though the campaign will not bear significant fruit for a number of years.

Our work this year will focus on expanding the number of prospective donors, and on understanding whether our goals and priorities – and how we present them – pull at donors’ heartstrings. Doing this work now will set the stage for the new President to launch the formal campaign.

The priorities in our case statement – built with feedback that many of you provided through your deans - focus on “big picture” opportunities that span departments and schools and that carry promise for truly transforming the experience of our students and changing our contributions to the region. These fall into three broad areas – supporting academic quality and opportunity for students; Global education, including study abroad scholarships; and regional relationships and engagement. You will learn more about this endeavor in the coming months.

Another baton is to begin exploring the alignment of campus goals and priorities with those of Chancellor Nancy Zimpher’s strategic plan for the SUNY system, The Power of SUNY. This is something that the Chancellor is expecting of all campus presidents, and we owe it to our new president to begin this process, which he or she can guide to completion next year. Furthermore, we will be exploring new initiatives that enhance our contribution to these broad goals.

Every campus needs to be prepared for disasters with a sound emergency management plan and a level of readiness that will allow it to respond effectively, most importantly and immediately in safeguarding human lives. We have a thoughtful and thorough emergency management plan. Campus police and other offices are well prepared and trained to deal with the initial steps of a disaster. But the Cabinet and I are concerned about the depth and breadth of our preparedness throughout the organization. We have not communicated our plan broadly, or trained members of the campus community, or emphasized the importance of such training.

During the year, we will take steps to improve our overall level of preparedness, something that I feel is important for us to remedy before the new president comes on board.

I am developing and refining structures to improve effective communication and information sharing throughout the College. Many of you have heard of a group that we call the Wonks. This is an important leadership body on campus that gives advice and counsel to the President and the Cabinet. We recently clarified and formalized its role to reinforce the importance of this group as a communication link between campus leadership and units across the College – including serving as a conduit for bringing information and concerns to the President and Cabinet.

We are establishing a next level grouping – tentatively to be called an administrative council – to include all of these people, along with other assistant vice presidents, directors, associate deans, and department chairs, that will meet once or twice each semester to foster broader opportunity for discussion and sharing of information throughout the College, in all directions.

Finally, you soon will receive an invitation to the first of a series of brown-bag lunches I will hold with groups of faculty and staff to discuss whatever issues may be on your minds. I look forward to these discussions and hope that you will consider taking part.

So far, I have reflected on the opportunities and achievements that excite and interest us and are the reason we are here. Making good things happen for students, faculty, and staff is one of the rewards of being a college administrator. But as we have shared with you in previous messages, we face an immediate budgetary shortfall, and the sure prospect of fiscal uncertainty that will continue for years to come. As you know, Vice President DiStefano and I will hold a forum next week to outline the process by which we will address our budget shortfall. I will take time here to offer a few thoughts about that process and its context.

As I have described previously, public higher education has over the past decades lived through multiple cycles of short-term economic downturn. These were typically followed by recovery, and conditions more friendly to colleges and universities. We in college communities learned to hunker down, tighten our belts and live temporarily with reduced resources, while realistically expecting relief. Many informed and careful analyses conclude that the current and near-future outlook for public higher education is fundamentally different, reflecting a low period of longer duration, one that will require bolder responses and more significant structural changes.

I shared with you an article by Daniel Hurley that is well-regarded nationally and informed by careful study of state-level higher-education policy and funding. He suggests that institutions like ours will need to reassess priorities, focus more specifically on core elements of our mission, and reinvest in those priorities. He writes that public colleges and universities such as ours must become more sharply focused upon the student experience, and reclaim in more concerted ways our public mission. Finally, Hurley argues that building campus cultures that are predisposed to and have capacity for implementing change is vital. Hurley is far from alone in such analyses and conclusions. Other forward-looking institutions are adjusting who they will be and what they will do.

As in other states, we in New York can hope that our state legislative and executive leaders will make decisions in the coming years to better support public higher education. However, recent history gives little reason to be optimistic, despite the best efforts of SUNY leaders, campus presidents, and the unions.

Economic and other analyses suggest that state revenues available for legislative allocation in the coming years will be constrained, and there will be great competition from health care, public safety and K-12 education – leaving little new support for higher education. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education this very week stated that New York public higher education administrators and union officials are – and I quote the article “skeptical that the new governor, whoever he is, will be able to protect higher education from another round of budget cuts.”

It would be irresponsible for me and for Cabinet to plan a budget for the future based merely on a hope of renewed state funding.

The time is right for us to think about a different future, to re-think New Paltz, and decide how we can do things differently. The budget difficulty that we face demands that we prioritize in ways that will better position us for the future. Many other institutions have faced equally severe budgetary issues and attacked them head on to emerge stronger and more vibrant. I am confident that we can do the same, and hope that we see and seize the opportunity that is embedded in this challenge.

To adjust our economy, we — as a leadership team and a campus community — will engage in a consultative process that will inform careful but clear decisions. Vice President DiStefano and I will be distributing information about this process before next week’s forum, and I encourage each of you to review that information and to participate. Your input and consultation is critically important for us to make sound decisions.

I want to be certain that everyone distinguishes between consultation and decision-making. I am aware of the sentiment that “consultation” is a cover for the administration to blur the lines of responsibility for difficult decisions. As I reminded you in the recent forum, I will not put faculty and staff in the position of making budgetary decisions, including those that affect personnel. Those roles and responsibilities — of decision making and consultation — must not be confused. The formalization of the charge to the Wonks group that I mentioned clarifies that Wonks is explicitly a consultative and advisory group, not a decision-making body.

But, again, to make informed decisions we need your insights and guidance.

Let me note another key distinction between consultation and decision-making. Consulting wisely and well need not result in decisions that are a hybrid, a blend of all of the input and ideas received. The decisions that we make require judgment, a careful weighing of conflicting information and values. All input may not, indeed should not, have equal impact on any final decision.

I want to comment about several specific ideas that have been brought forward in previous consultation, and to share my thinking about how these will fit into our planning. As a campus, we are heavily invested in personnel. We are aware of the many retirements in recent weeks and know how much these colleagues will be missed. We are sensitive to job loss and want to do everything we can to safeguard jobs. But it is not feasible to adjust our economy to the degree that we must without impacting positions. Taking all cuts from non-personnel items would cause severe harm to the quality of the institution and our programs, perhaps creating an institution where few of us would want to work and in many ways putting the future of the College at risk. We do need to look for savings in non-personnel areas, but most such savings that we accrue will need to be reallocated for inflationary obligations.

In reducing our budgets, we can minimize impacts on current personnel by working together to make programmatic adjustments by re-thinking how we do our work. The departure of so many colleagues through early retirement is clearly a loss to the campus, but also presents us with an opportunity to reorganize our work with a reduced workforce.

The suggestion is often made that we can address our economic issues by increasing enrollment. In nearly every respect, our campus is at capacity – residence halls are full, food service and other facilities are tapped, and there are other indications that we cannot accommodate more students without sacrificing quality. Furthermore, SUNY system is anticipating caps on new undergraduate admissions – which means that enrolling more students, even if we could do that, would not produce more revenue. This is not a strategy that we can consider.

We watch new buildings going up and others being renovated. The State University Construction Fund is a separate pot of money that I cannot use to pay operating costs – even if we wanted to. And we need to remember that this construction is a good thing. Many of our buildings and spaces are inadequate and outdated. The projects that we are undertaking and planning are important investments in our future and are catch-up for us after a long history of state under-investment in our campus.

We want and encourage your ideas about how we might adjust our economy. But I hope these examples make clear that some approaches are not viable. We have to tackle our budget issue by thinking differently about our approaches and delivery and how we do our work, by asking hard questions, about not being all things to all people, and by investing in our priorities. Again, other institutions have done and are doing these things, and I am confident that we can as well.

I want to close by shifting gears to offer two illustrations about how we might collaborate as, like Janus, we look to the future. The first of these is drawn from my disciplinary background as a biologist, and has to do specifically with interactions in times of diminished and diminishing resources. And then I will draw upon an African American cultural story for further guidance.

The field of biomimicry is concerned with studying nature’s best ideas and imitating them in designs and processes to solve human problems. Examples include Velcro, inspired by seed dispersal mechanisms, non-toxic nanoscale paints inspired by butterfly wing pigments, and passive cooling in high-rise buildings inspired by air passages in termite mounds.

The example I draw on today concerns interactions among biological organisms within a community, with particular reference to plant communities. Two key interactions are facilitation – in which one species or organism has positive effects on another – meaning that having a neighbor is a good thing, and competition – in which one species or organism has negative effects on another, meaning having a neighbor is bad.

Ecologists have been interested in which of these interactions prevails in circumstances of differing resource availability and environmental stress. The example I draw on is based on comparison of plant communities in high-elevation alpine environments that are resource-poor and stressful, and those in lower elevation, resource-richer, and less-stressful settings. Ecologists have studied facilitation and competition in these communities by removing neighbors. If plants do better after a neighbor is removed, it suggests that competition is the primary driver of community interactions, but if plants do more poorly after a neighbor is removed, then facilitation has been the dominant interaction.

Our natural instinct is to assume that in harsh environments, where resources are very limited, competition prevails. In reality, and to many people’s surprise, studies show that in resource-poor, stressful high-elevation plant communities, facilitation is by far the more frequent interaction.

I don’t want to offend anyone by overdrawing a parallel between our community and plants, but plants have developed amazing ways to deal with resource constraints and we can learn from them. This simple example has opened the minds of hard-nosed business men and women to change their thinking about how to thrive in tough economic times – focusing on cooperation rather than competition.

I hope that we can find inspiration here about how we might interact with and support each other during what are unquestionably difficult times.

To extend this principle, biologists suggest that facilitation may be a key factor in evolutionary changes that qualify as quantum leaps in life on earth – such as the evolution from single-celled to multi-cellular plants and animals. And, many analysts of higher education predict that colleges and universities will emerge from the current recession as strong institutions – but very different from the way we are now. A focus on facilitation rather than competition may be one key to our success as a community in dealing with immediate resource constraints. And this in turn may help us make the important transitions to a stronger future.

Now, still looking forward, I close with a story told by Reanae McNeal. She is an African-American woman who performs one-person plays about the lives of black women throughout history. This story carries a lesson about collective responsibility.

An old blind woman in the community was considered an Oracle – she was wise, had great insight, and helped people solve every problem they brought to her. One year some teenagers in the community had grown to resent her always being right, and grew determined to prove this woman wrong. They thought, and finally concocted a foolproof plan. They would catch a live songbird, hold it in their hand, and approach her to ask whether the bird was alive or dead, knowing that she could not see it. If she said that the bird was dead, they would let it fly away and prove her wrong. If she said the bird was alive, they would crush it, and prove her wrong.

So they caught a bird, one of them took it in his hand, and they approached her with the question. She thought for a few moments, threw her head back and laughed, and told them “It’s in your hands; the answer is in your hands.”

I intend to do my part to guide us during the current year, but I hope you recognize that significant elements of the way we work together to move ahead this year are in all of our hands.

Thank you for your attention, and have a great year.

Donald P. Christian, Interim President